Magna Carta: Muse And Mentor

May/June 2015

By David S. Mao

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published as an introduction to Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor published by Thomson Reuters in association with the Library of Congress and edited by Justice Randy J. Holland of the Delaware Supreme Court. 

Nearly eight hundred years ago, on June 15, 1215, a group of barons compelled King John of England to commit to a set of liberties that subjugated royal power to the rule of law. That pledge was the genesis of Magna Carta, a document that has over time gained an unmatched reputation as a major milestone on the road to modern constitutional government. For Americans, its stature is similar to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. No list of the great documents of liberty is complete without it. It is remarkable, however, that in the twenty-first century people continue to admire a medieval charter that is not law in any world jurisdiction, and that contains provisions relating generally to customs and institutions that have not existed anywhere for hundreds of years. The range of topics Magna Carta covers and many of the specific interests it protects are unquestionably out of date. Yet despite the document's archaic applications, and its uncertain relationship to contemporary civil liberties, Magna Carta's reputation endures.

When beginning preparations for an exhibition to commemorate Magna Carta's eight centuries, the Library of Congress decided that the exhibition had to address the question of how a document that on close inspection appears so foreign to contemporary laws and society could have become so central to the political identity of the United States. This question is not the same as asking why Magna Carta is still relevant. The question of Magna Carta's relevance relates to how Magna Carta continues to impact lives today, which indeed it does. Instead, the Library's exhibition illustrates and explains the broader tradition of Magna Carta's long life in American memory-not only what it is to people today, but also what it has been to the nation throughout American history. Magna Carta's reputation endures to this day in part because generations of Americans have continued to honor it. The Library hopes that its exhibition will explain this long-lasting American fascination with a feudal charter granted by a foreign king, in a distant country eight hundred years ago.

Perhaps the reasons Americans revere Magna Carta today are not necessarily the same reasons why they commemorated the document even a hundred years ago. The understanding of medieval England has changed over time, enriching the contemporary view of what Magna Carta meant in its original context and consequently changing the way people evaluate its virtues and vices. Likewise, changing political and intellectual fashions over the past century have provided different perspectives about the rise of constitutional government in early modern Europe compared to those perspectives prevalent in 1915. As a result, scholars have reevaluated Magna Carta's impact on that story as well.

Looking across the span of historical writings on Magna Carta, the Library discovered that for centuries the meaning people have attributed to the Great Charter in politics and law has depended most of all on what their contemporary historians said it meant. As a result, Magna Carta has presented several very different faces over the centuries, influencing events sometimes as a treaty, sometimes as legislation, sometimes as constitutional law, and sometimes only as a piece of political symbolism. While historical knowledge always informed the use and interpretation of Magna Carta, the most influential writers on the topic sometimes have written the history that the times required. Magna Carta's story cannot be told without recognizing that the story one tells about the past may have been far more important than what really existed.

Among the variety of historical opinions that the Library encountered in Magna Carta literature, this last insight stood out as a constant. What people have thought about Magna Carta over the centuries since its creation-what they have imagined it to be-has often been more influential than what Magna Carta really was for its creators on that day in June of 1215. This idea became the starting point for the Library of Congress's exhibition. Rather than trying to say what Magna Carta means to people today, the Library envisioned an exhibition that would illustrate the document's importance by showing what it has meant to people, especially Americans, in those times and places when Magna Carta's memory guided and inspired some of the most significant legal, constitutional, and political changes that have shaped the world.

The Library of Congress exhibition Magna Carta: Muse & Mentor tells the story of Magna Carta from its creation until its recognition as one of the sources of fundamental law in England. It then changes direction and traces the history of Magna Carta's incorporation into law in British America and its continuing legacy in the constitutional law of the United States. The exhibition's narrative thread follows several important instances during the last eight centuries in which innovative uses or interpretations of Magna Carta directly contributed to major legal and political developments. The exhibition gives special attention to those historical moments in which the memory of Magna Carta helped to shape American constitutionalism.

The exhibition draws items from collections across the Library of Congress, including those from the Law Library, the Prints and Photographs Division, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, the Manuscript Division, and the Music Division. In all, the exhibition brings together seventy-seven items to tell the story of how people have understood and appealed to Magna Carta over the centuries to influence the events of their day. From the rise of modern civil liberties in England to the founding of the United States, the exhibition traces Magna Carta's enduring legacy into contemporary times. The Lincoln Cathedral's 1215 Magna Carta is the centerpiece of the exhibition, serving as an august reminder of the bedrock upon which the United States was founded.

The exhibition's first two sections provide visitors with a historical overview of the events that led to Magna Carta's creation. One section discusses King John-both in the context of the political issues of his time, and in the way generations of writers and historians have portrayed him since then. Another section discusses the reasons for the barons' revolt and the background of the reforms they demanded.

The next four sections of the exhibition represent documented instances in which changing historical understandings of Magna Carta made it possible for people to appeal to King John's battlefield treaty to advance a variety of legal and political causes. The section "Confirmations by Kings and Parliament" describes the way that King John's successors, and later, Parliament, used Magna Carta as a pledge to uphold the rule of law. "Interpreting the Rule of Law" documents the influence of common law historiography on Magna Carta and Magna Carta's use as constitutional law in Parliament's conflict with Charles I. "Rights of Englishmen in British America" explores the liberties granted to English colonists through the various charters that established and governed their settlements in the Americas. Finally, "No Taxation without Representation" recounts the use of Magna Carta in the development of the independence movement in colonial America.

A single section entitled "Magna Carta and the United States Constitution" chronicles the creation of the constitutions of the several United States as well as the federal Constitution and Bill of Rights and their debt to Magna Carta.

The next four sections of the exhibition single out some of the most significant constitutional principles that emerged from Magna Carta, and trace their historical arc from the middle ages to present day American jurisprudence. These significant principles, which resonate with all Americans today, include due process of law and the right to a trial by jury; the writ of habeas corpus and freedom from unlawful imprisonment; and constitutional checks on executive power. For each of these principles, collection items from the Middle Ages and the early modern period appear side by side with contemporary artifacts to show both change and continuity in the understanding and application of those principles.

The exhibition finishes on a light note with a section that relates some of the ways Magna Carta has been celebrated in English and American culture, from satire and music to public commemorations and Magna Carta-themed genealogical associations. All of these examples demonstrate that Magna Carta, a source of American constitutional principle, has also become an enduring symbol of national identity.

This book is a companion volume to the Library of Congress exhibition. Justice Holland has brought together an impressive international array of distinguished jurists and scholars. Their engaging and enlightening Magna Carta articles correspond with each section of the exhibition and are illustrated with exhibition images. The work represents a rich intellectual vein that legal scholars and historians can mine two-hundred years from now, when the world celebrates the millennial anniversary of Magna Carta. The Library of Congress anticipates that at that time, the principles of Magna Carta will still be alive in this country and around the world.

David S. Mao was appointed Deputy Librarian of Congress in Januay 2015. He has been in charge of a recent reorganization of the Law Library of Congress and of its historic exhibition of Magna Carta.